‘Insular’ and ‘xenophobic’ are two words that seem to fit the British to a T (or two Ts), and to account, in part, both for Brexit and for the outbreak of chauvinism that has followed it – including insults and even physical attacks directed at foreigners. Historically however that is nonsense. Of course Britain has always been insular literally – i.e. a group of islands – but never culturally, politically or spiritually, with her 400-year old Navy easily overcoming the disadvantage of that narrow stretch of water between her and the Continent, and giving her far greater contact with the ‘wider world’ – beyond Europe – than any of her European neighbours. Britain has probably been the most ‘outward-looking’ nation in all history. Some of this outward-lookingness has expressed itself imperially, but by no means all of it, and even imperialism was not simply a matter of her imposing her own insular views on others. It involved give and take; genuine ‘internationalism’, in a sense. (See my British Imperial.) Here the physical map of Europe is misleading. Britain may be an island; but she was never insular. In any case, as John Donne famously wrote, no man is.
It may have been her geographical insularity that gave rise to the myth that her people were particularly xenophobic, both abroad, of course, but also at home, where the chauvinistic Englishman was a favourite trope of novelists, including Dickens and Thackeray, who may have thought – and certainly enjoyed giving the impression – that this was a unique characteristic of their compatriots. (I’ve written about this, too: “‘Bureau and Barrack’: Early Victorian Attitudes towards the Continent”, in Victorian Studies, vol.27 no.4 (1984), pp. 407-33.) This is where the myth of the arrogant British tourist originated, though it will have been strengthened by some genuine bad behaviour by Britons afterwards. In fact there’s no evidence – and probably no way of finding any – that the British were any more xenophobic in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, either abroad or at home, than most other peoples; and quite a few signs that they were a good deal less so than, for example, the proudly isolationist Chinese. So far as racial attitudes were concerned a study of geography teaching in Swedish schools suggests that the Swedes must have been more conventionally ‘racist’ than British schoolchildren; in part, I would suggest, because Sweden hadn’t had any significant colonial experience. (And the Swedes can still be pretty nationally arrogant today – with good reason, I would say.) At the very least, Britons should not be tarred as particularly ‘xenophobic’, at any time over the past 200 years.
And there’s evidence the other way. Britain was always a multi-cultural, multi-‘racial’, and even multi-national country, and for most periods of her history deeply proud of this. History books emphasized her mongrel beginnings: Celts, Saxons, Danes and Normans originally, with later waves of immigration spicing the mixture – mainly Irish, French Huguenots and Jews; culminating in the great Caribbean and Asian immigrations of the 1950s onwards; all as part of the fundamental British narrative. You’ll find very few writers over the last two centuries celebrating Britain’s racial homogeneity, simply because that would be impossible. Some of these waves of immigration caused problems (to put it mildly): the Danes and Normans especially – after all, they came as conquerors and colonists; but there were also localized and short-lived protests against Jewish immigration in the early 1900s, and of course against ‘coloured’ immigration in the post-war years. That seems natural, in view of the social disruptions these immigrations could cause. But things always calmed down. In the nineteenth century Britain prided herself on the welcome she gave to foreigners. That’s why she had no laws to prevent them coming in or to expel them if they misbehaved. (Not many people know that.) Britain’s doors were entirely open to everyone.
That included political refugees in particular. Britain was the main destination for Continental dissidents fleeing from oppression at home – usually revolutionary, even anarchist, though occasionally royalist – throughout the nineteenth century; dissidents who famously included Karl Marx, who was known to be a bit of a firebrand while he was writing his magnum opus in the British Museum Library, and alarmed some nervous politicians, but who could never have been expelled from Britain, even if there had been a law to allow it, without antagonizing just about the entire British public. The latter tended to blame foreign governments for the refugees’ excesses. Expelling Marx – or whomever – would have meant giving in to foreign tyranny. Even murderers were exempted from Britain’s very weak and patchy extradition laws, if their murders had had ‘political’ motives. Continental governments complained forcefully, even threatening war with Britain over the ‘refugee question’ at one point in the 1850s; but the British government refused to budge. (This is the subject of my The Refugee Question in Mid-Victorian Politics, 1979.) Asylum was sacrosanct.
And there’s little evidence that foreign refugees, immigrants, visitors or workers were ever treated particularly hostilely by the British public in this early period; as they weren’t either, by and large, before Brexit. Most were warmly welcomed. For Britain this paid off handsomely: many of her leading industrialists, like Alfred Mond, came from immigrant stock, as well as the novelist Joseph Conrad (Polish) and the composer Frederick Delius (Norwegian). And then of course there was the Royal Family. ‘Never forget,’ Queen Victoria once told her son Edward when he was thinking of siding with the French in the Franco-Prussian War, ‘that we are Germans.’ But that didn’t seem to affect her popularity later on.
I once planned a book on this: on Britain’s almost unique tradition of internationalism in modern history. There’s much more to be said about this than I have room for in this post. The book was to be called Cosmopolis. I even got a publisher’s contract for it; but sadly I never got beyond the first couple of chapters. If I can rouse the energy, I might have another go at it. If it does nothing else it might show how Brexit and its aftermath can’t be explained in terms of a long and peculiar ‘insular’ history. And indeed how they fly in the face of one great British tradition, at any rate.